Not to offend anyone or anything, but I've been searching up about abortion lately, and all the debate about it, and it got me wondering, when does a baby develop a consciousness?

Consciousness - the ability to sense the world around you in an independent way. You can think for yourself, and make choices that defy your natural instincts. It is what some say separates us from wild animals. Animals have a survival instinct. They do what they can to survive. Eating colourful packets of soap is not an example of a survival instinct, and therefor proves that we have a consciousness.

Definitions of consciousness

So when does consciousness begin in a baby? And before that time, how does the brain work? Does it just feel the surroundings without any response? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  • $\begingroup$ Just curious, is this question too general? What are some ways that I can improve it? $\endgroup$
    – user24268
    Commented Sep 18, 2019 at 22:06
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    $\begingroup$ Hi Fuzzy, in my opinion, this question is not answerable. We have neither a good definition of what consciousness is (which may or may not be an answerable question, but in any case, experts in the field disagree; see for example psychology.stackexchange.com/questions/987/… ), nor a good definition of what differences there really are between human and non-human consciousness. The only thing that I would be confident in is that there is no particular moment. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Sep 18, 2019 at 22:36
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    $\begingroup$ "Eating colourful packets of soap is not an example of a survival instinct, and therefor proves that we have a consciousness." is also not a definition of consciousness I have ever heard before. Animals do many things that are not good for their survival, and are also definitely conscious, but the two are unrelated. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Sep 18, 2019 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Bryan Really? I thought consciousness could be compared to a survival instinct since consciousness means that we can think for yourself, which is the opposite of what some animals do. Oh, and I provided a link in my question if that could help $\endgroup$
    – user24268
    Commented Sep 18, 2019 at 22:47
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    $\begingroup$ Keep in mind that there is no way to know for sure whether anyone/thing else other than yourself is conscious. All objective measures of consciousness (behavior, EEG, etc...) have an implicit assumption that if something is sufficiently similar to something known to be conscious e.g. me, then it too must be conscious. Questions about a baby's consciousness essentially boil down to 'when is a baby sufficiently similar to a conscious adult human?' $\endgroup$
    – Justas
    Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 0:25

1 Answer 1


Q: When does a human baby develop a consciousness? … Consciousness - the ability to sense the world around you in an independent way. You can think for yourself, and make choices that defy your natural instincts. It is what some say separates us from wild animals...

A: Consciousness is the term that has various meanings. In the above meaning, it requires the function of certain groups of neural circuits that include the ARAS (ascending reticular activating system), several cortical areas, and the thalamo-cortical loop [1,2]. So, for a fetus to begin to have consciousness, it must have these neural circuits developed to the point that they start functioning, which occurs around gestational week (GW) 24 -26. [3,4]

“Two of the most important pathways in the brain are the ones that transmit sensorimotor information, the thalamocortical (TC) and corticothalamic (CT) pathways. The TC relays sensory and motor information from the receptors in the retina, cochlea, muscle or skin to the sensorimotor regions of the neocortex via the major subcortical sensorimotor relay, the thalamus. The CT pathway completes the feedback loop by transmitting information from cortex back to the thalamus. These essential pathways begin to form in the later part of the second trimester in humans, and are complete by GW 26. [3]”

Studies about sleep-wake cycles in fetuses also find that a fetus has definite sleep-wake cycles with distinguishable REM and non-REM periods between GW 28 – 31 [5,6]. This means that a fetus does already have periods of wakefulness, which are necessary for conscious awareness to occur, instead of being in an unconscious state all the time, during this time. So, consciousness begins to exist in a fetus no later than this time period.

However, consciousness in a fetus is in a very rudimentary form; this can be evident from the fact that even an infant, which has a more mature brain than a fetus, exhibits consciousness only at a low level compared with an adult and that the default mode neural circuit, which is now found to have an important role in consciousness at rest [2], is still incomplete[4]. What’s more, the sense of self or self-recognition begins to appear in some infants only around 15 months of age and in a majority of infants by 24 months of age [7]. So, it’s very very unlikely that an infant has the sense of self and that it can think for/about itself.

In conclusion, it seems that an infant begins to have a rudimentary form of consciousness at around GW 24-26. This may help provide informed decision about legal abortion.

“Assuming that consciousness is mainly localized in the cortex, consciousness cannot emerge before 24 gestational weeks when the thalamocortical connections from the sense organs are established. Thus the limit of legal abortion at 22-24 weeks in many countries makes sense...[4]”

However, these are only indirect evidence. Direct, definite evidence of when exactly a fetus begins to have consciousness is not available yet.


  1. Koch C, Massimini M, Boly M, Tononi G. Neural correlates of consciousness: progress and problems. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2016;17: 307-321. The full pdf file can be downloaded from here.

  2. Song X, Tang X. An extended theory of global workspace of consciousness. Progress in Natural Science. 2008 Jul;18(7):789–793.

  3. Stiles J, Jernigan TL.The Basics of Brain DevelopmentNeuropsychol Rev. 2010 Dec; 20(4): 327–348.

  4. Lagercrantz H.The emergence of consciousness: Science and ethics. Semin Fetal Neonatal Med. 2014 Oct;19(5):300-5. doi: 10.1016/j.siny.2014.08.003.

  5. Okai T, Kozuma S, Shinozuka N, Kuwabar Y, Mizuno M. A study on the development of sleep-wakefulness cycle in the human fetus. Early Human Development. 1992 Jun-Jul; 29(1-3): 391-396. https://doi.org/10.1016/0378-3782(92)90198-P

  6. Mirmiran M, Maas YGH, Ariagno RL. Development of fetal and neonatal sleep and circadian rhythms. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2003; 7(4):321-334.

  7. Anderson JR. The development of self-recognition: A review. Dev Psychobiol. 1984 Jan;17(1):35-49.


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